Bill Bryan, who made the motion to call for a referendum during the City Council’s Jan. 26 meeting, said it is time for the city to begin exploring options to shore up its dwindling revenue.
The exemption, he said, was put into place through a referendum a number of years ago when the economic times were different.
“I don’t think anyone realized the impact that such an exemption would have on our city’s finances,” he said.
Canton grants a $112,000 exemption on property for seniors age 62 or older. The person receiving the exemption must reside in the home.
Along with Canton, Holly Springs and Woodstock offer senior homestead exemptions for those 62 years or older.
In the state of Georgia, homes are appraised at fair market value, but are assessed at 40 percent of that appraised value.
For example, a senior in Canton who owns a home valued at $300,000, assessed at 40 percent, or $120,000, would have the $112,000 homestead exemption applied, which would leave the property with $8,000 that can be taxed.
The city would then calculate the taxable portion with its 6.80 millage rate, resulting in the homeowner having a $54 tax bill.
As property values decline, some homeowners end up paying no property taxes.
Bryan contends those receiving the exemption aren’t the ones who benefit from it.
“We need to look at the ones who really need help, the ones living month to month, hand to mouth in rental properties,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m proposing to let voters decide. It’s not accomplishing anything worthwhile.”
Bryan said in 2011, 1,231 homes in the city limits either paid no property taxes or paid a “disproportionately small amount.”
Three years ago, he noted that number was close to 1,500 and an additional 102 homes have applied for the exemption just in 2012.
The councilman said that exemption has cost taxpayers $601,043 and the city’s revenue has dropped by 22.5 percent last year.
Bryan said he’s merely pointing out these details because his “sworn responsibility is to represent all of the citizens of Canton.”
“I don’t want to come across with a person with a vendetta, he said. “I’m just doing my job. I pointed out a gigantic hole in the public treasury and a way to fix it.”
Bryan’s proposal last week drew several comments in opposition, including comments from Mayor Gene Hobgood and other council members.
Hobgood said the city just needs to “tighten our belts” and “we will be okay.”
He added it wasn’t in the best interest of the city to take away something that’s been in place for years.
“It’s very clear that if we didn’t like, it shouldn’t have been given,” he said “It’s a good thing for seniors and they do contribute to the community quite a bit.”
Councilman Glen Cummins agreed, adding the elimination would “discourage seniors from moving to the city.”
Councilman John Beresford said Bryan was more willing to point out the money being lost with the exemption, but ignores the city’s roughly $30 million debt related to the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir.
“There’s other ways to approach our financial situation,” he said. “He’s really grasping for straws. I’m very disappointed in his actions. I’m disappointed in his thought process.”
Councilman Jack Goodwin said he also disagrees with Bryan, adding many seniors have worked very hard to get where they are and many in the city are on fixed incomes.
“What little we give them in benefits, I think most of them put it back in the community,” he added.
Bryan contests the fact that seniors will stop moving to Canton if the exemption is altered or revoked.
He also said there is no way to prove the arguments some made last week that seniors spend more of their per capita income inside the city than the younger generations.
Bryan also “responsible homeownership” brings the responsibility of paying for municipal services one receives.
He also said he wasn’t sure where the city could cut any more expenses and “continue to exist as a city.”
“I’m not disrespectful towards senior citizens that have worked hard, but (they) have not worked hard to get a free ride at the expense from the rest of us,” he said.
Councilman Bob Rush said he can see where his fellow elected official is coming from, but added “he’s pushing it a little too hard.”
Rush said the city could explore lowering the exemption because of the fact that property values have declined.
Councilman Hooky Huffman also said Bryan brought up valid points, but he noted he would not be in favor of eliminating the exemption.
Huffman did say the age of 62 as the standard was established years ago and many seniors continue to work and live past the age of 62, so it wouldn’t hurt to examine reviewing the age.
If any changes were go to in effect, Huffman said he would support current citizens receiving the exemption being grandfathered in so they would not be affected by any changes.
“This would not render the city near the amount of savings that Mr. Bryan initially proposed, but over several years, it will help close the gap,” he said.